Trade unionists have demonstrated their determination to defend jobs and services. The overwhelming mood on marches in London, Glasgow and Belfast was that further, more militant action is required to fight back against and defeat the Con-Dem coalition’s savage cut-backs. socialistparty.net assesses the situation, and the tasks ahead for the workers’ movement in Britain.
The TUC demonstration in London on 20 October, attended on the TUC’s estimate by 150,000 workers, was a great success. Ten thousand also marched in Glasgow and thousands in Belfast in separate demonstrations. It was not on the scale of 26 March last year, nor as enthusiastic as the public-sector strikes and demonstrations in June and November. The lower turnout involved the core of the trade unions and the labour movement. But there was a feeling among many workers that more decisive action was necessary to shake the government and force it into a retreat.
This mood was answered by the TUC (Trade Unions Congress) conference in September, with its support for a resolution proposed by the Prison Officers Association (POA) and supported by the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT) calling for the TUC to explore the practicalities of a one-day general strike. This historic decision would not have been possible without the persistent and energetic work of the Socialist Party and particularly the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), in alliance with the left trade unions including the RMT and POA.
This was matched on 20 October in three electrifying speeches: by Len McCluskey of Unite, Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS, who all called for the TUC to organise a one-day general strike. This call was received with acclamation by the tens of thousands of workers assembled in Hyde Park. Len McCluskey also called for a show of hands by the crowd, which was massively in favour of a general strike. It was in marked contrast to the booing which greeted New Labour leader Ed Miliband when he said that a future Labour government would face “hard choices” on government spending, widely understood as code for ‘Labour cuts’. Bob Crow, correctly, openly attacked Miliband for, in effect, ratifying the present government’s case for ‘some’ cuts.
All that the media reported was that Miliband had been booed. Not a word appeared on the size of the demonstration or the mood, not even in the Daily Mirror. In particular, they failed to report the speeches and calls for a general strike by the three trade union general secretaries who spoke on this issue for the majority of trade union members. This is not at all accidental, reflecting as it does the morbid fear of the strategists of capital of the social consequences of the Con-Dem coalition government’s eye-watering cuts. Therefore, they must attempt to draw a blanket of silence over this crucial step and what it means for the development of the consciousness of the British working class and labour movement.
Turning a call into action
Of course, for the moment, the demand for a general strike remains just that: a call for action. The TUC must now go further and name the date. It must reject all attempts to water down the demand with suggestions of ‘coordinated action’ instead. It should stick to the call for a one-day general strike. It should be called at an early date, but should not be rushed, ensuring plans for a campaign of mobilisation and explanation are put in place carefully. This should drive home why a one-day strike is necessary to the broad mass of trade unionists and, through them, to the population as a whole. The chance to explain before mass audiences the character of capitalism and the alternative of socialism should be seized!
On the demonstration, one NSSN placard calling for a ‘one-day general strike’ had the words ‘one-day’ blocked out. In other words, the worker carrying it did not want just one day, but an all-out strike. However, despite the depth of the present crisis and the urgency of defeating the government’s austerity programme, this would be a bridge too far, at this stage. An all-out general strike would pose the question of power: of the working class and its organisations being prepared to set up an alternative government and concentrating the main levers of economic and political power in its hands. The working class is not yet ready for this step. A preparatory stage, perhaps a series of preparatory stages, is necessary before we can arrive at that situation.
The rhythm of the workers’ movement differs from one country to another, depending upon the stage through which they are passing. We have not experienced the 20 general strikes of the Greek working class over the last two years. Clearly, in Greece merely to call for another one-day strike, and another one after that, would be inadequate. It is necessary to seek to escalate the struggle but with demands which take into account the level of understanding and attempt to take it to a new higher level.
In Britain, we are not yet in a situation, particularly politically or in terms of the consciousness of workers, where there are elements of a pre-revolutionary situation as in Greece. Therefore, the task is to advance the movement through a one-day general strike, the purpose of which will be to fuse the working class into a stronger and much more cohesive force. That purpose and nature needs to be explained, tying the one-day strike indissolubly to fighting the cuts and laying the basis for forcing the government out of power.
Even a one-day strike in Britain, embracing private-sector as well as public-sector workers, would be an earthquake. Given that only 26% of workers are unionised – only 15% of workers in the private sector – it would take a massive campaign to convince a majority to come out on strike. The advantage we have is that the government itself has generalised the struggle by attacking both unionised and non-unionised sections of the population, private and public-sector workers. Big sections of the middle class have also seen their conditions and lifestyles undermined. It is, above all, necessary to link this action to the overall economic and political situation in Britain.
A future of endless austerity
Moreover, we must expect a complete somersault by the capitalists and their mouthpieces in the media once it dawns on them that the working class and its organisations are serious and determined to show, in a mighty display of working-class power, their bitter opposition to the ruthless austerity programme of this government of millionaires. A dirty tricks campaign of misinformation by the capitalists will take place. Scare stories of what could result from a one-day strike will be manufactured to create the impression that the dead will not be buried, the sick, disabled and elderly will be left unattended, etc. This will have as much effect as a snowflake on a hot surface if the campaign of the bosses is countered properly by driving home just how far the Tory-led coalition is prepared to go in defence of capitalism.
Working people understand that George ‘Slasher’ Osborne and his partners in crime against the working class have already taken an axe to the NHS – 5,000 nurses having left already – and have cut public-sector employment by nearly half-a-million, with the likely result that one million workers will be driven out of the public sector. The claim that the private sector will take up the slack and employ these workers lies in ashes. In fact, overall unemployment – already at catastrophic levels – will be pushed up by a further programme of cuts of at least £10 billion, because the government deficit is growing rather than contracting.
And it is not just the working class that bears the brunt of this crisis: the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ are being drawn into the economic abyss. A thousand shops have closed down in the first half of this year as high streets are boarded up, in many areas becoming dead economic zones. Some sections of the middle class cannot pay mortgage bills, fill the car with petrol, plan for a family holiday, etc.
David Cameron and Osborne say that the working class and the middle class must swallow this ‘medicine’ – cuts and further cuts – stretching into a future of endless austerity. This, they say, is necessary in order to avoid the fate of other countries like Greece or Spain. However, Britain is already Greece in slow motion, a little less far down the road but moving towards the same destination!
The charity, Save the Children, for the first time, is feeding children in this country whose parents, often working, are not able to properly feed them. Nearly two-thirds of parents in poverty say they have cut back on food and over a quarter say they have skipped meals in the past, and one in five parents in poverty cannot afford to replace their children’s shoes. Eighty per cent of parents in poverty say they have had to borrow money to pay for food and clothes. Forty-four per cent of families in poverty say that every week they are short of money, while 29% say they have nothing left to cut back on. In Westminster, whose council is infamous for being under the sway of unreconstructed, vicious Thatcherites, an inquest in October revealed: “A baby boy starved to death… as his seriously ill and ‘socially isolated’ mother struggled to obtain proper housing, benefits and support”. (The Guardian, 6 October)
These simple facts give the lie to Ed Miliband’s invocation of 19th-century prime minister Benjamin Disraeli of ‘one nation’ at the Labour Party conference. In his vacuous speech, Miliband did not add that Disraeli also spoke of ‘two nations’ in Britain. These ‘two nations’ observe each other over an ever-widening and deepening class chasm.
Cameron has admitted that austerity will last a decade, a lost ten years for the economy and the British people. Now some capitalist economists are predicting not one but two, maybe even three, lost decades, a repetition of the depression of the 19th century from 1873 to 1896. It would differ in character to the 1930s ‘great depression’, which was deep and brutal worldwide, in being perhaps shallower but much more drawn out. One thing is certain, however: huge swathes of the working class will face increased suffering and poverty.
The fight of our lives
This is the product of the desperate and deteriorating economic plight of British capitalism. Larry Elliott of the Guardian recently rehearsed a theme that Socialism Today first raised, by suggesting that we could face a repeat today of the Geddes report of the early 1920s. This proposed a severe austerity programme, with the government taking an axe to public expenditure. This was resisted by the trade unions and working class, and culminated in the 1926 general strike. A similar collision between the classes, much like the early 1920s, is rooted in the situation which is developing in Britain.
This is the first time since 1926 that the national leaders of the trade unions – and some of the biggest unions, including the biggest, Unite – have called for such action. It is true that in 1972, at the time of the jailing of the Pentonville dockers, the TUC went on record in favour of a one-day general strike. But this decision was taken by the TUC safe in the knowledge that it would not be called upon to act. This was because the TUC had been given prior notice that the dockers were about to be released, by the recently discovered ‘fairy godmother’, the Official Solicitor, with powers to swiftly spring them from jail, hence defusing the situation for a period.
This time it is completely different with the call for a one-day general strike taking place against the background of a generalised offensive against all the rights and conditions of the British working class. It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the fight of our lives. Every day, the press and TV are full of attacks on health, education and public-sector pay. This bombardment is almost calculated to produce ‘outrage fatigue’. One horror story is piled upon another, a picture of increased or prospective suffering. Better to wait until the storm passes, some workers could think.
But the economic hurricane will not go away. The capitalist offensive will be intensified and will be relentless until it is resolved in one of two outcomes: either the capitalists will succeed or the working class will be triumphant. There is no final crisis of capitalism, it is true. But any unstable equilibrium realised through this system will only be achieved by a defeat of the working class and a drastic reduction in living standards. What has gone before will be nothing compared to the savage programme the Tories and Liberal Democrats will try and implement.
Cameron seems to have concluded that his original prognosis of short-term attacks on the working class, followed by economic revival and triumph for him and his party at the next general election, or at least for the coalition parties, will not materialise. Therefore, why not go for broke? Dismantle what remains of the public sector in an orgy of privatisation, thereby establishing facts on the ground which a Miliband government will not reverse. The right-wing editor of the Spectator magazine, Fraser Nelson, emphasises this: “It will be clear even to David Cameron that he is on course to lose the next election… The economic recovery has evaporated and, with it, the Tories’ chance of winning next time… Every bookmaker now agrees: Cameron is now heading for a crash”. (Spectator, 6 October)
Right-wing Tory MP Nadine Dories simply states: “We need a ‘kill Cameron’ strategy”! This may not be necessary as Cameron is making a good fist of committing political hara-kiri; witness the latest fiasco of Andrew Mitchell’s clash with police officers outside 10 Downing Street and his subsequent forced resignation as chief whip. It seems probable that the new crop of young Thatcherites, who entered parliament in the 2010 election and are eager for high office themselves, decided his fate by giving him the thumbs down.
Osborne and Cameron have also tried to distort shamelessly the figures to disguise the scale of mass unemployment. No real jobs have been created. Part-time jobs on slave wages have increased due to the Olympics, and are concentrated mostly in the south. Moreover, at stake is the very right of the trade unions to exist as effective defence organisations of the working class. Seamus Milne in the Guardian commented: “Nearly 200 years after the defeat of the Combination Acts, Britain’s corporate media and political class still struggle in practice to accept the right to strike”. (12 September)
Battle lines drawn
If anyone thinks that this is an exaggeration look at what the government’s chief hatchet man of the civil service, Francis Maude, is proposing for 450,000 public-sector workers. On top of the slashing of the workforce, the Guardian also reported in a ‘leaked cabinet office document’ that, by the end of this year, the terms and conditions of civil servants will be examined and plans introduced to “make their jobs more like those in the private sector”. This will involve attacking past gains, including workers’ annual leave, occasional leave, sick pay, hours of work, the ability of workers to move from one job to another and probationary periods. It was described as a “sickening blow” by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, particularly for civil servants, workers who are already suffering from an imposed pay freeze, and cuts in pensions and redundancy terms.
In an attempt to ensure that workers’ resistance to these cuts will be weakened, Maude is also proposing to cut trade union facility time: “All departments are being advised they are not to allow more than 0.1% of the pay bill to be devoted to union duties, down from the present 0.26% average”. In addition: “Paid time off for trade union activities, such as attending union conferences, will not be granted. A new regulation will block those who spend all their time on union work from being promoted”. The PCS has pointed out that the employers actually gain by this arrangement: “The very small proportion of work time that is allowed is more than justified by the huge organisational and economic benefits that it brings and it is absolutely right that this is publicly funded”. (The Guardian, 6 October)
There will be blowback if this measure is implemented. There is already a ratcheting up of fury in the ranks of PCS and other workers because of the cuts. This was shown when Maude visited the Revenue and Customs offices in Coventry recently. He had previously suggested that, as an alternative to a one-day strike against pensions, civil servants should take just 15 minutes, a ‘civilised’ but, needless to say, ineffective action. On this occasion, however, the HMRC workers took Maude’s advice, and spontaneously staged a 15-minute strike after he arrived! The employers will face a big price ultimately if they remove facility time.
If they get away with it in the civil service, it will be extended to other workers, like teachers. Already in some London schools, National Union of Teachers members are so terrified of the reign of terror imposed by dictatorial head teachers that some have been forced to hold union meetings clandestinely away from the school. This in turn will create a bitter but harder mood, where new sections of the working class will be steeled for the struggle. Rather than defeating ‘militancy’, it will breed new militants.
The battle lines have been drawn. The full strength of the unions must be deployed through action to defeat this government. The Portuguese workers recently showed the way when almost one million people took to the streets in over 40 cities and forced the government to reverse some of its austerity measures.
A new mass party of the working class must be built as the political voice of organised labour. Miliband showed once more on 20 October that, like the capitalist Liberals – whom the Labour Party originally displaced as the voice of the workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the present ‘Labour’ Party is in the camp of capitalism. This may not stop Labour wining a majority in elections – it currently stands at 43% in recent polls – but many will vote for it through gritted teeth in order to defeat the Tories. But workers in the US vote for a ‘radical’ capitalist party to defeat the right-wing Republicans. A Miliband government will disappoint millions if it is elected and remains within the framework of capitalism, as it will. We must build now a new mass voice, an independent party of working people. Support for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is a step in this direction.
We must take up the call for a general strike by organising meetings in every area, factory and workplace to discuss how to make it effective. The General Council of the TUC must set the date for this strike and then direct all forces to the point of attack in order to realise an immense manifestation of working-class power. This can stop Cameron and his crew in their tracks. Capitalism – and the capitalists of both the ‘responsible’ and ‘irresponsible’ varieties – has no answers. Only a democratic socialist plan of production can show a way forward.